At this point, Sally Rooney probably needs no introduction. All three of her novels have been huge bestsellers and Normal People was turned into a mini-series. I’d sort of written her off as a young Millenial author and as an elder Millenial myself, I assumed I would have nothing in common with her books or characters. I had, however, put Normal People on my TBR back in 2018, the library had it in stock, and so I read it. In the end, I devoured the story in just 2 days.
Yes, the story begins with high schoolers in 2011, a year in which I was navigating newlywed life, but the novel is so firmly based in characterization and relationships that the timeframe is almost irrelevant.
The book follows Marianne and Connell through four years of their young adult lives. Drastically different in high school, they are nonetheless magnetically pulled together. Over and over again, they are unable to stay apart and no other relationships in their lives seem to offer what they receive from one another. Connell is quiet but popular in high school, easily able to navigate the adolescent turmoil. Marianne is the outsider, disdainful of all things related to their high school and town. A betrayal separate them at the end of high school until they are reunited at university several months later.
Here, their roles seem to have shifted. Marianne has found her groove and settled into university life well while Connell is struggling to find his footing. Again and again they are drawn to one another, sometimes to the detriment of other relationships. Though the question that lingers through the novel is whether or not this is a relationship that truly benefits them both. Would it be better for them to full sever their ties or to completely accept what draws them together?
Rooney does an amazing job of moving easily between two very different characters. She stays in third person but it is always clear whether or not we are viewing the world from Marianne’s or Connell’s perspective. Each chapter begins with the month and year, along with how much time has passed since the last section, which also nicely grounds the reader. Shifting between the two main characters like this lets us see how they view the world and how they view each other. We see the large and minute misunderstandings that develop between them. In one particular instance, we spend a section with Marianne, pondering a confusing departure by Connell only to more fully understand the situation when we switch again to his perspective.
These aren’t the frustrating misunderstandings that usually pepper rom-coms though. The kind that could easily be explained away if the characters just.talked.to.each.other. These are real life misunderstandings. Ones based in social and economic and family differences. Ones based in the fact that different people communicate in different ways and sometimes even when you’re being clear, another person doesn’t hear the true meaning behind your words.
I wanted to stay with Marianne and Connell. I wanted to follow them into middle age, into their senior years. They felt like people I went to school with, classmates I might have set next to. They felt like real people. I’ll be eagerly awaiting my next Sally Rooney read.